kids

At 14, we found the birth certificate of a brother we didn't know we had. Last year, we met him.

An extraordinary moment is about to unfold in an otherwise ordinary place. 

It’s a warm Autumn morning in Boston, and we’re sitting inside a cafe that looks out onto a small, city park. It has silver chairs and tables bolted to the grass and a tall black gate around the children’s play area. Leaning against that gate is a woman with short ash-blonde hair, glasses and knee-length cream shorts on. She’s our mum. We keep pulling faces at her because we can tell she’s nervous. That’s what the onlooker would see: twin girls in their late twenties poking their tongue out at a woman across the road, who appears to be waiting for someone. 

The thought crosses all of our minds. What if he doesn’t come? We’ve travelled from Sydney – 16,000 kilometres, 23 hours in the air – for this moment. Mum keeps swallowing. We take a photo of her standing there, hands clasped behind her back, feet pointed outwards, glancing around the corner. 

A few times we think we see him, but it turns out to be the wrong man – another person with their own story, their own questions, their own quiet uncertainties. 

“That’s him,” one of us says. 

We expected him to be wearing a hat, but realise that’s only because he’s wearing one in his Facebook photo. He’s wearing a blue checked shirt, clearly ironed, and jeans. He has Mum’s nose. The height of our uncles. The hairline of our brothers. 

His name is Andrew. And Mum is seeing him for the first time since she gave birth to him exactly 37 years, two months, and 21 hours ago. 

**********

When Mum – Anne – was 22, she faded from the lives of most of the people who knew her. She didn’t play on her basketball team or go to parties. She didn’t go to work. She took a semester off studying.

As the months got cooler, a bump grew under Anne’s jumpers that could no longer be hidden. The last thing she did before disappearing for a while was attend a friend’s wedding. It took almost 37 years for that friend to admit that she knew Anne was pregnant. It was obvious. She just didn’t know how to bring it up. 

Mia Freedman spoke to Anne Stephens, our mum, on a special Mother’s Day episode of No Filter. You can listen to the episode right here. Post continues below. 

Anne fell pregnant to her boyfriend at the time. She says now that their relationship was dysfunctional. They weren’t right for each other, and they probably both knew it. They hadn’t planned to have a baby. She hadn’t studied like she wanted to, she was working part-time taking bets at the races and didn’t have the means to care for a baby. For the first few months, she says she was in denial. She ignored the changes happening to her body and put off making any kind of decision, which was probably a decision in and of itself. The baby in her belly continued to grow. She would have this baby. But she knew she wasn’t yet the mother she wanted to be. The baby she birthed would be adopted, to be brought up by a mother and a father, in a stable home, with everything he or she could ever need.  

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Back then, in 1982, inside the Catholic school bubble she had been raised in, single parent families were rare. There were widows. There were husbands who walked out. But you did not have a baby on your own. Two young, unmarried women who Mum knew had fallen pregnant, and both had put their babies up for adoption. Thirty eight years ago, that is simply what you did. 

Some members of her family attempted to talk her out of it. They offered her a roof over her head and to help with childcare. She’ll never forget their generosity and support. But this was her decision, and if there’s one thing we know about our mother, it is that she is impossibly stubborn. 

So she moved back in with her parents, and waited for the baby to come. She didn’t know if she was having a boy or a girl, so she always called the baby Sam. 

She remembers lying in a hospital bed on July 1 preparing to be induced. She was scared. A nurse sat at her bedside. They talked. She can clearly recall her kindness. 

On July 2, 1982, after six hours of labour, a little boy was born. Her mother, our grandmother, was with her. Mum required a blood transfusion and remembers feeling weak. She thinks they gave her something to dry up her milk. At first, she thought she’d write Sam on the birth certificate, but it felt silly. So she chose James. James Coffey. 

Paperwork from the time indicates that Mum was interviewed by the Catholic Adoption Agency. She confirmed she was not being pressured into this decision. She wanted to study, she said. And become a teacher. They asked about her hobbies. Her values. Her interests. And they worked to find a family who matched  all those things as closely as possible. 

And so, the little baby she called James did not come home with her. 

A few weeks later, as the story goes, a couple were driving through a Sydney tunnel, deciding what to call their new baby boy. 

‘James’, they agreed. 

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But by the time they exited the tunnel, they’d changed their mind. 

His name would be Andrew. Andrew James. 

**********

From the cafe across the street, we watch the tall man, his feet pointed outwards, put his arms around Mum. The person whose heartbeat he first listened to. Whose stomach he kicked from the inside. Who held him for a few moments, then let him go.

His wife, Lisa, joins us. We’d decided this moment belonged to Mum and Andrew. They talk. Look at each other. Laugh. 

Of all the places for them to meet, Boston is interesting. It’s where Andrew spent most of his young adult life. He studied law there. He now lives in Rhode Island, about an hour away. 

While he was studying, meeting his wife, trying to work out who he was and, eventually, attempting to find his birth mother, he might have walked past Mum on the street. One of us – Clare – lived in Boston for 12 months in 2014. Mum and Dad, and Jessie, came to visit. In snow and sunshine and wind and rain, while talking about America and food and where to go next, we had walked past his university. We’d walked through a park he walked through on his way to work every day.  

That day, the first day we meet, we all have brunch together. We recognise his laugh. It’s the same as our uncle Ross. It isn’t long before we apologise for his nose. That would be Mum. She was hoping he’d been spared it. 

We learn he is colour blind. So was Mum’s father. Sorry about that, too. We ask if he’s a night owl. What his favourite food is. Whether he snores. If he has a dog. What subjects he was good at at school. His answers confirm he is our brother, but even more than that, the feeling we get sitting next to him tells us everything. A closeness. An ease. He is someone we have known for 45 minutes and our whole lives, our skin made of the same stuff as his skin, our thoughts built from the same cells as his thoughts. 

andrew
Jessie, Andrew, Anne, Clare, Lisa. Image supplied.
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Mum watches him, mostly. She can’t quite believe it. He is eloquent and charismatic - the person everyone likes. He probably doesn’t recognise the look on Mum’s face. But we do. It’s adoration. Complete and utter adoration.

The next day we meet for brunch again. Mum and Andrew order the same coffee. We talk and ask questions and we make fun of his Jerry Seinfeld accent. Just as we’re about to leave, Andrew drums at the table with his fingertips. One hand at a time, almost as a “where to next?” Later that night Mum says it was spooky.

It's a mannerism that perfectly mirrors her older brother's. 

We go to Andrew’s home, where he and his wife have a rescue dog named Winston and their lives hang on the walls and hide in drawers. Wedding photos, medals, old assignments from school.

After a few drinks, Andrew brings out a folder with everything he was ever given about Mum. Paperwork describing her family’s medical history, forms she filled out, documents he was given when he started asking questions as a kid. We’re talking and smiling and laughing but there are five people in the room and there’s a lump in everyone’s throat. 

We look at baby photos and childhood photos and there’s an odd sense of familiarity. Eyes and hair and expressions that look like our own. 

**********

When Andrew is eight, his family move from Davidson in Sydney to Long Island, New York. 

As a teenager, he walks his dog Lucy around his neighbourhood listening to recorded Dave Matthews concerts on his Walkman. He looks up at the sky and thinks that one day he will find his birth mother and say thank you. For the walks with the dog. For his recorded Dave Matthews concerts. 

It’s not until a couple of years later that he starts asking his parents about his birth mother. Did she look like him? His mother gives him information from the adoption agency that says the woman who gave birth to him - Anne - had green eyes and light brown hair. She wanted to be a teacher, and she liked playing basketball, reading and going to the movies. She was 5 foot 3. 

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With an image in his mind, he thought of how at 18 he would find her and thank her.

But at 18, something stops him. Then at 20. He would have a concrete sense until his late twenties that he wasn’t ready to ‘present’ himself to a stranger, to whom he felt his life was owed. 

While studying law in Boston at 28, Andrew starts to have panic attacks and his mental health deteriorates to the point where he takes a semester off. He sees a counsellor and unpacks the overwhelming weight that he owes so much to two sets of people - his adoptive parents and his birth parents. He feels that every mistake, every slip up, every perceived failure is a failure to repay what he’s been given. Anything that isn’t progress or achievement is a failure to show the people who selflessly gave him life how much their sacrifice meant to him.

The counsellor helps him see that by his own standard, he’ll never be enough for the people he feels indebted to. It won’t matter if he becomes a CEO or cures cancer or wins a Nobel Prize, nothing in his own eyes will ever compare to giving life in the way an unknown woman had provided him. 

He realises that the complete person, the established life, the finished article doesn’t exist, and that’s when he dives into the process of trying to find his birth mother.

At around the same time, Andrew meets Lisa at law school, a person who radiates a happiness he didn’t know was possible. She doesn’t understand when he watches documentaries about the darkest days of humanity, or ruminates on insecurities or pessimistic possibilities. She wants to help him find his birth mother, and together, it takes them almost a decade.

**********

As Andrew is held and loved and learns to walk and talk and grows alongside siblings and family, Mum finishes her teaching degree.

She meets a man - Peter - who makes her laugh and whose soul is good. 

She can’t remember the moment she told Peter about having given a child up for adoption, because it was never something that worried her. He wasn’t judgmental, and his reaction didn’t scare her. 

At the end of 1990, Mum arrives in hospital. She’s heavily pregnant with twins, and she’s due to be induced. She’s terrified and the nurse can’t work out why. Mum can’t bring herself to explain that this isn’t her first time. 

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Her twin girls are born at around the same time Andrew was - 2pm.

As her daughters grow, and her twin sons arrive two and a half years later, she thinks of Andrew not on arbitrary dates or times, but at moments that surprise her. 

Every year on July 2nd, her mum gives her flowers and a card. An acknowledgement that they both know there’s a toddler, a child, a teenager, a man out there, who’s celebrating his birthday. 

She thinks of him every time she has to provide her medical history. And sometimes when she’s walking down the street and sees a man who would be roughly his age. Could that be him? 

On his 18th birthday, Mum holds her breath. He can contact her now. She’s always kept her details updated, every time she’s changed addresses or phone numbers. The worst case scenario for her, she would later tell us, is that he is trying to reach her and can’t. 

Years later, that’s exactly what would happen. But not yet. 

In fact, on Andrew’s 18th birthday Mum does get a phone call. It’s from the man she’d fallen pregnant to. He’s 18 now, he says. If he contacts you, will you let me know? Mum assures him she would. But the letter, or the phone call, doesn’t come. 

A decade passes. Her mother, the only person who acknowledged his birthday, dies. Her daughters, us, grow into adults, and then so do her sons. And then one day in 2018, an unusual letter arrives in her letterbox. It’s from The Salvation Army. And it says someone is looking for her. 

**********

We’re 14 when we find a birth certificate belonging to a person we don’t recognise. It’s just before winter and we’re registering for netball. We’re sifting through boxes of documents trying to locate our birth certificates which are in a different place every time we look. 

Found it. 

It’s the same font and format. The paper is yellowing. Except the name is not Clare or Jessie, Jack or Nicholas. It’s James. James Coffey. And he was born in 1982. The mother listed is our mother. For a moment we think perhaps it’s our cousin who has the same name. But the dates don’t add up. 

We ask her what it is. 

“I don’t have to tell you everything,” she says. Something about her tone tells us to leave it alone. 

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We don’t speak about the birth certificate again for 12 years. 

For us, though, the pieces gradually fall into place. And when we walk down the street and see a man who looks eight or so years older than us, we wonder if he is our brother. At weird hours of the night, we convince ourselves we can find him by searching Ancestry.com records of babies born in particular hospitals on certain dates. 

But deep down we know adoption agencies are smarter than that. And there’s no finding this person if he doesn’t want to be found.

When Facebook comes along we look up the name ‘James’ and enter his date of birth, scrolling through profiles of men we know aren’t him.

There would be a time, a few years later, when a man in Rhode Island would be doing the same thing. Clicking on our Facebook profiles and wondering if these could possibly be his siblings. The difference is, he will have stumbled across the right ones. 

**********

No one wants to point fingers, but the process of Andrew trying to find Anne is frustrating. 

There seem to be missing pieces of the puzzle that take years to find, and they’re filled with uncertain Google searches and Facebook rabbit holes. Finally, during one of his searches, he comes across the profile of a woman who lives in Sydney, whose Facebook name includes the maiden name Coffey. She has two sets of twins, and he scrolls through a disjointed collection of photos that form some semblance of the patchwork of their lives. He sees one of Anne’s sons. The man, in his early 20s, looks unmistakably like him. But he tries not to become attached. There’s a sea of doubt and coincidences and projections that he still has to wade through. Was it her? He couldn’t be sure.

In July 2017, Andrew makes a request to Births, Deaths and Marriages and locates Anne’s married name. He’s now sure the Facebook profile he found - the woman with a rugby league player as her avatar (seriously, Mum?) - is his birth mother.

One of the more 'normal' photos on Mum's Facebook account. Image supplied.
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He has a typed, signed letter he’s written carefully and held onto for a year. It opens with:

I am writing to you in the belief, with the assistance of Catholic Care Sydney, that you are my birth mother.

He sends an electronic version of it to Anne on Facebook messenger, but never receives a reply.

He writes in the letter, ‘If this is to be our only contact, I so very strongly wish to simply tell you I am well, I am okay, and I am forever grateful for the life I have so far led. For that I simply want to say, thank you.’

He had told himself that if he knew Anne had heard from him and didn't respond, he’d be okay. But as the days and weeks wore on, he realised he wasn’t. He couldn’t know for sure if she had received the letter.

It took until early the following year for him to reach out to the agency and say he wasn’t satisfied. The letter was then sent to Anne’s home address, and not long after it arrived, Andrew received an email. 

Dear Andrew, it reads.

I cannot express the relief I feel that you are such a beautiful, grateful, intelligent, caring young man.

One of the last sentences reads, I held you tightly but then decided you were going to have a life with two parents who would give you everything you needed. 

The more Anne gets to know Andrew over email, an ill-fated FaceTime call (where he mostly sees up her nose because she’s holding her phone at an awkward angle), and ultimately, by meeting him, the more she learns he had grown up with a life so beyond anything she could have imagined for him. Aunties and uncles, siblings, overseas holidays, scuba diving in Thailand, a wedding, a fulfilling career, a home - a life built largely by his parents, two people she doesn’t have the words to adequately thank. 

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**********

On an autumn night in Boston, Andrew tells us about that Facebook message. He shows us evidence that he sent it, and yet when we open Mum’s messenger, the letter isn’t there. 

But it doesn’t matter.

The joy of what’s happening eclipses the scary possibilities of what could have been missed.

The questions you ask an adult brother you’ve only just met aren’t like those you ask an acquaintance. There’s no small talk. You want to know the unmissable joys and quiet melancholies of their life, the questions they had when they woke up at 3am and couldn’t fall back to sleep. The weird fears and the world views and the unshakeable values. 

They finish your meal when there’s some left over.

They tell you when there’s food in your teeth. 

They laugh with you when they realise Mum can’t have her photo taken without being possessed by a nonsensical expression.

Did you have braces? Do you have high cholesterol? What’s your eyesight like? How are your knees? Are you scared of sharks?

The distance and uncertainty that necessitate social convention are gone. You want to know this person, because knowing them means knowing yourself a little better, too. 

**********

Leaving Andrew after our time together is unexpectedly painful for all of us. When we arrive in New York for the next part of our trip with Mum, we’re silent. It’s impossible to comprehend the meaning of an interaction that significant in real time, and afterwards it’s foggy, too. 

We joke that it feels like an extended, rather bizarre Tinder date. What if they don’t like us? What if they’re like, ‘great to hang out, but I don’t see this going any further’? What if we weren’t what they expected or wanted?

But there’s a sliver of light because Andrew and Lisa have a trip planned to Sydney at Christmas. 

There’s a steady stream of emails and Facebook exchanges and Instagram messages and memes of dogs and tidbits about our days that fill the months until December. 

Then on a hot, sticky Sunday, just after 12, Andrew and Lisa walk into our family home. The one where 14 years earlier we’d found a birth certificate. And wondered who it belonged to.

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He meets an aunty who says she had known when she held him as a newborn that this moment would come.

Weeks later, Andrew and Lisa will learn that they’re expecting a baby.

In February, they send us an immediately recognisable photo: an ultrasound, showing a tiny heart-shaped ball of cells.

Their baby daughter is due in October, and will be enveloped by every single part of this messy, fragmented, hopeful story.

Mum worries that when Andrew has a child of his own, he’ll wonder how she could have ever given one away.

But perhaps when he becomes a father, he'll understand exactly how you could.

How you'd make any sacrifice - no matter how much it hurts - to give this little person, with a whole life ahead of them, everything you can.

For more from Clare and Jessie Stephens, you can follow them on InstagramFacebook and Twitter

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